Ed Hooks Acting for Animators

The Illusion of Life and Acting

In an interesting Slate.com article  (“How Does a Pixar Film Get Made”, March 18, 2015), long-time Pixar layout artist Craig Good provides the studio’s definition of animation like this:

“The definition of animation used at Pixar is ‘to bring something to life.‘  If the audience is convinced that a character’s actions are the result of a thought process, then they will see that character as alive.”

Bringing a character to life is an essential first step for performance animation, but Pixar’s definition of animation does not come close to describing how acting works.  “To bring something to life” is what you do when endowing a character with  “the illusion of life”,  just as Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston explained, in their essential book The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation on page 507:

“…each (character) thinking his own thoughts, and experiencing his own emotions.  That is what makes them so real, and that is what makes them so memorable.  It is also what gives them the astounding illusion of life.”

The Illusion of Life Isn’t Enough

Making a character seem “real” or “alive” is where acting begins, not where it ends.  When animating characters, it is important to remember that acting is doing something and that acting has structure.  A character can have an illusion of life, complete with thinking and vivid emotion, and still be boring.  Example: take a look at ths 3-minute compilation of clips from the Disney film Bolt, featuring Rhino the Hamster.

Most of the sequences display no acting at all, just cute anthropomorphic animals hanging out talking, talking, talking and talking some more.  Rhino exudes personality, energy and emotion; he is overflowing with the illusion of life.  The problem is that emotion is not actable.  Illusion of life is not enough.  The underlying challenge in these clips is that the script is weak. It’s a horribly over-written, dialogue-stuffed screenplay, and even Disney’s talented animators couldn’t save it.


Contrast the weak performance in the Bolt scene to the superb performance in the low-battery Baymax sequence from Big Hero 6.

Both characters – Hiro and Baymax – have been endowed with the illusion of life but, significantly, they are also doing something, namely trying to get Baymax plugged into a re-charging station.  In order for a sequence to be theatrically valid, a character should have a provable objective.  In this case, reaching the re-charging station is provable because the characters will know whether or not they got there.  A character should be playing actions in pursuit of an objective.  Hiro’s actions are to keep Baymax generally on track to the recharging station.  A theatrically valid sequence also requires conflictobstacle, something that the character must overcome in order to achieve his objective.  In this case, Baymax’s low-battery status provides plenty of that because he can barely stand up, let alone navigate home where the recharging station is.

I will depict hatred, but only to show that there is something more valuable.

I will depict a curse to show the joy of liberation from it.

I will depict the boy’s understanding of the girl and the process by which the girl opens her heart to the boy.

In the end, the girl will likely say to the boy: “I love you, Ashitaka.  But I cannot forgive humanity.”

Smiling, the boy will probably say: “That’s all right.  Let’s live together in peace.”

This is the kind of film I want to make.  

Princess Mononoke Planning Memo, Hayao Miyazaki

from his book Starting Point, 1979-1996  

Ed Hooks

Acting For Animators

Ed pioneered Acting for Animators in 1998 while working with the animators at PDI/DreamWorks in northern California. Since then he has presented his masterclass at most major animation studios and game companies internationally. Ed’s book Acting for Animators, now in it’s 3rd edition, is a required text for animators in training everywhere. Ed is a DeTao Master with the Beijing Masters Academy in China and a featured speaker at animation events around the world: FMX in Stuttgart, Germany, Animex in England, Siggraph, the Game Developers Convention and many more.

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The Making of Cursed, a Juba Polati Animation Tutorial

The Making of Cursed – Animation Workflow Tutorial

Hello there, my name is Juba Polati and I am the animator who created “Cursed” – that short film where a bunch of stuff happens in Maya, yes the one with the T-Rex. If by any chance you haven’t seen it, I would love for you to watch it, it will make things a lot easier to understand from now on.

The Animation Process

Before we begin, I want to clarify that there are many ways to create a project, here I will briefly talk about how I tackled my Short film, just bear in mind it isn’t the only way. Also, I will be using a lot of terms and words that are part of the CG and Animation world, I will try to explain as much as possible, but if you don’t know a specific word, then it’s a great way to familiarize yourself, look it up online and find out what it means.

My process is a lot like what DJ teaches here at Animation Salvation, but still, a little different, here I’ll explain. These are what I would call my steps in regard to DJ’s.

  1. Foundation – Research/Pre-Production
  2. Structure – Production/ Golden Poses
  3. Details – Blocking/ Splining
  4. Polish – Splining/ Polish

With that being said let’s begin, but first Research!

The Research

After I came up with the idea, which is the easy part by the way, I went and did some research! What I mean by that is, I thought about what I wanted the film to be, so I went online to find images that had the same look, and same style I was going for. I tried to find things that would help define what I wanted to create, so the transition of what’s going on inside my head to reality was as close as possible.


On the other hand I also needed to find out how I was going to make it. My first major road block was figuring out a way to have everything inside a Maya scene. I started experimenting with screen capturing & practicing the mouse movements to fit the action of the character; but I soon realized that would take more time than I had. So I figured out another way to approach it, I would “fake” the scene, by measuring the width and height of the Maya UI (User Interface) and creating a 1:1 plane in the scene I was able to project the texture of the UI onto it. I then created a simple rig to control the interaction with the mouse and there it was, the basis of the project. I maintained the same idea for everything else, creating other planes with projected textures for the file menu and Import screens, and a simple 3D rig for the Cursor.

That let me have absolute control over the timing and interactions, which in the end saved me a lot of time. After figuring that out, I could actually start planning the film, and move on to the animatic.

The Animatic

For those of you who don’t know what an animatic is; it is the simplest form of showing your animation or movie. You make storyboards and compile them to show the pacing and timing of your shots. Create an animatic! It becomes incredibly easy to tell what works and what doesn’t in your film, and so, easy to fix at this stage. Watch these clips, they will explain it a lot better than I can.

What is an animatic?

Avatar Animatic:

I can definitely say this was the hardest part for me, since the idea I had let me explore several different situations, and it was hard to pin down the story and interactions to fit the short time frame I had. But with this process I was able to figure out what story I was telling and how I would tell it.

For me it was easier to go straight into a 3D animatic since my staging was incredibly simple and I didn’t have any complex compositions. So I shot some live reference of me playing out what I imagined the interactions would be like, cut and edit my footage to play like the film and added most of my golden poses to the scene, and there it was, I had my 3D animatic. I make it sound simple but this stage took weeks of work and planning, and the contents of the film changed several times.

Looking back now and seeing how much the final product changed from my initial idea, boggles my mind, but I was aware of every change along the way

and knew I was changing it for the better. I have to say I had a lot of support from my animation teachers and friends, and without them, the film wouldn’t be half what it is. So in this stage, show your stuff to other people and ask them what they think. It really helps to have that different perspective.

At this stage it’s all about experimenting, creating, showing, reiterating… Rinse and repeat. And after you have something that works and that you like, well then my friend, it’s time to get your hands dirty!

Animation Production

Animate, animate and ANIMATE! That is all.

Well there is a bit more to it than just saying animate… In my case I had a huge scene (time wise, not in actual file size) that held all my golden poses, but if I started animating within that scene, for one it would become really heavy and give me immense heartache at the end of production, and lastly I would never feel like I was accomplishing anything, since the shot would never be done until the last moment. So I got some great advice from my mentor to break the movie down into separate shots, that way it would become a lot more manageable, and by separating them into difficulty, from easy to hard, it became easier to judge how much work I had to do.

I started with the easiest shot I had, to get the animation juices pumping to my brain, and immediately jumped to one of the hardest, I made it my priority to finish the hardest ones first, because leaving them to last was too much of a risk. I would always go from a hard shot to a medium, back to a hard and then maybe an easy one to regain my spirits.

But you must be asking: how do you take on a shot?

Taking on a shot

Where to start? A lot of places, first and foremost, on your computer desk. Sitting with the correct posture, and also taking breaks every hour to stretch, because kids, maintaining your physical health also keeps your animation “alive”, see what I did there? I mostly start on paper, writing down my character motivations and actions I imagine would happen in the shot, and with that in mind I move on to shooting live reference.

Reference is incredibly important to your shot and Animation in general, so I focused on learning a lot of the process and how to make it work for me. I would get a camera that shot in 24fps, go inside a room and stay there for hours at a time, thinking of silhouette and staging, character reactions and motivations. I had a lot of help from my friends, but if you’re not comfortable with shooting in front of other people, that’s totally fine. Find what works for you.

After I got my reference, I would cut and edit the shots I thought worked best, and mash them together into a single clip. That made analyzing and studying my body acting a lot easier. I analyzed the clip to understand what was moving when, and where the center of gravity was; all that good stuff.

Golden Poses

These are the most important poses in your shot, with only Golden poses, you should be able to tell exactly what’s going on in the shot. I would find what my main poses were and time them to my reference. That way I could work really hard to make them shine! Like they are made out of gold, because gold is shiny, and they are the “Golden” Poses… That worked better in my head…

Blocking Your Animation

After I had my Golden Poses, I would block in the key poses to tell the timing, extremes and movement in the shot. Keep in mind in this phase I’m still in stepped mode, working to find the right timing and spacing in my action.


After I was happy with my blocking, I would start adding breakdown poses, to help define my arcs, overlapping actions and follow through. This helps to read the action better and get a better sense of the movement.


Splining Your Animation

This is the part where you take your animation from Stepped mode, into the smooth Linear, or Auto mode. I experimented a lot in this phase, changing the modes to see what I preferred for the shot. This is also the part where I started to clean up my Graph Editor.

Polish That Animation

This is the last 10% of your animation, the cherry on top! I spent a lot of time in this part, just adding detail and texture to the animation, but one thing I always kept in mind is knowing when to be done with a shot and move on, since I had another fourteen to work on. It is hard, and a lot of times I left a shot with the feeling of it not being done, but that let me touch every shot then go back, polish and fix what I already had.

In this clip Jeff Gabor masterfully shows all these processes at work:

What did I do after I finished animating? Ha! Surely you jest my friend! I was never done animating! I had a deadline, and so couldn’t animate anymore =D. But either way, what about rendering?

Post Production

Rendering is for FOOLS! No, I joke. Rendering is awesome! But I had a choice: spend time rendering or animating? I chose the latter and playblasted my film. I just found a way to get a decent quality out of the playblast and since I was doing that anyway to check my animation, I had all my shots getting updated every time I polished something.

All I had to do was some editing, titles and picking my soundtrack, which I did from 5 Alarm. The Sound Design was done by Matt Thomas from VFS. Thank you to him!

Final Words

Well this was mostly my process, and there were times where a lot of these overlapped each other in production time, I was editing and doing titles, while I animated, I was blocking a shot and polishing another. Also what I describe was a process taught to me by incredible artists (aka animation Teachers and friends) that supported and helped me through making the film, so for that I’m always grateful. If you made it this far I congratulate you on the conviction and thank you for reading! Now, all I can say is, go animate!

Cursed | Animation Tutorial

How to Animate Complex Character Interaction

“So how do you handle a scene with two or more characters interacting?
Specifically, how would you handle physical fighting or wrestling?”

Once again, it comes down to the 4 main stages of any animation:

  1. Foundation
  2. Structure
  3. Details
  4. Polish

Lets look at these and how they specifically apply to complex character interactions.

Stage 1. Foundation

Before you ever start posing or setting keys, you must have a solid plan.

You will need to know the choreography of the fight. When do the characters come into contact with one another? Where is the driving force coming from on each contact?

Really, the fastest way to plan such a scene is to film a few people acting it out. It will take much longer if you just sit down and try to thumbnail it out without any Video reference.
With live actors, you can direct them in real time and experiment with different ideas.

Once you’ve filmed your Video reference, go through and sketch out every key pose.

  • Look for changes of direction in weight or poses
  • Look for contact and transfer of force between your characters.

Make sure you have all of these sketched out with a note of the timing according to your reference.

Now you’re ready for…

Stage 2. Structure

Set all of your key poses on your characters in 3d.

Many animators like to use Stepped keys, but some software packages don’t allow stepped keys.
At least try to use linear.

Make sure you get all points of contact keyed in on all of your characters.

Check all of your key poses from every angle to ensure they contain proper weight, balance and force.

Stage 3. Details

Here we can begin to smooth out our animation and add in breakdowns and inbetweens, but don’t
start offsetting keys and try to resist the urge to start really polishing.

A great way for getting the contact between two characters to stick – is to link a null or a dummy to the point of contact, then align the end effector of the other characters limb to that dummy on every key frame.

Make sure you have your weight and force worked out before you do this, that way you know which character or limb is leading the motion.

Stage 4. Polish

Now you can go to town and really polish your animation.

Go through it many times, each time focusing on one of the 12 principles of animation.

Perfect every arc on your pelvis, hands/arms, head/eyes and any other main moving object.

Make sure that the ease in/out of every key is what YOU want, not what the computer has given you.

Make sure you have overlap and follow through so that everything doesn’t come to a stop all at once in any part of your scene.

Ok, that’s a very simplified breakdown of how to approach a complex interaction scene, but really, you’re not going to learn much from reading emails. Get outta here and go try it!


Giving Your Characters the Illusion of Life

What is it that gives an animation the Illusion of Life?
You could say it’s the pose, because the pose can tell you what the character is feeling.
You could also say it is the timing, because you can set the mood of your character through the timing.
And yet, when you watch great animation it feels like there is something more.

What is that *more*? How can you achieve it in your animations?

In order to demonstrate, I’d like to breeze through the animating of a scene:

  • First, I get the storyboard, the audio track, the character model sheet etc from the
  • Next I pose out and thumbnail the action of my scene
  • Finally I keyframe it out on the computer with the proper timing

This is the general process that most of us go through when animating, but I’d like to suggest a few more steps to really add that ‘Illusion of Life.’ Now think about what life is. Now there are
about 20 definitions over at Merriam-Webster, but I’m talking in specific about definitions 6 and 11:

 6 : a way or manner of living
11 : the form or pattern of something existing in reality

We want to give our characters the Illusion that they exist in reality! The illusion that they have developed their own manner of living!

How do we give Our characters the Illusion of Life?

Well, you should be talking with your character lead if you have one, and/or the director.
Discuss character traits:

  • Does he nervously dart his eyes around and act like Woody Allen?
  • Did he have a traumatic experience in childhood that makes him walk through every door backwards?

There are some strange personality quirks that people have in real life, and you know what this expresses? That’s right, that they exist in reality!
They have lives outside of their interaction with you!

A great example of this is Peter Lorres character Ugarte from Casablanca

Peter Lorre interacts with Humphrey Bogart in the movie Casablanca

Peter Lorre interacts with Humphrey Bogart in the movie Casablanca

Just look at that face, the way he’s trying to mimic Rick’s (Bogart’s) confidence. And yet he always, even if momentarily, reverts back to his worried, weasely self.

That is a great character and one that lives on in your memory! But what made it a great character? Well, it was the fact that he existed outside of his scenes so well.

We never saw him kill the German Couriers or get the papers, and yet we knew he did it by the way he acted! The way he held his body (posing) and the manner in which he moved between poses (timing).

Another great example of Ugarte’s character is the way he enters the Film. He could just walk into Rick’s Cafe, but that wouldn’t tell us very much about him as a character. Instead he ‘weasels’ in between an arguing customer and the door man with a passing “Hello Rick…”!

From his first frames in the movie we understand what kind of character he is! Plus, the entire time he is talking with Rick, we sense that he and Rick have history together and Ugarte really wants Ricks approval.

We get this, not so much through dialogue, but through the posing and timing of Ugarte’s movements. There is a great gesture Ugarte does at about 9:50 into the film which is very odd, and yet tells us so much about his personality!

These things are what give characters that Illusion of Life!

“But we can’t compete with live actors!” you say.
Guess what? Peter Lorre, Humphry Bogart, these people are dead, and yet their characters live on in the same form that ours will: 2D images mixed with sound.

We have the same tools as any actor, real or imagined. If we use them properly, we will be able to create characters that truly live, maybe even longer than we will!

So lets go back to our list and see what we can add:

  • First, get the Storyboard, audio track, character model sheets etcetera from the director
  • Next, talk with the director and your character lead about the personality of your character
  • Discuss with the lead and any other animators possible character traits, poses, nervous ticks
  • Sit down and imagine your character acting your scene out in your mind, let it run free at
    first, then subtly direct it
  • Thumbnail your characters action out on paper
  • Take these thumbnails first to your character lead for approval/suggestions, then take it to
    your director for approval/suggestions
  • Now set your keyframes, and MAKE EVERY FRAME COUNT
    • Everything from the way your character enters and exits a scene, to every pose they hit, to the timing between the poses should have a purpose and tell us something about that character.

Well, I hope that helps a few of you. And if anyone has any further comments on this topic, please share them! Until next time…
Happy Animating!